Love them or loathe them, all-inclusive resorts dominate the landscapes of many popular destinations, and there’s no denying they can offer an unrivaled combination of convenience and affordability. But how do you decide whether the all-inclusive option makes the most sense for you? Here are ten tips for going all-inclusive, including when and where to find the best deals and how to get the most from all-inclusive packages.
Ten Tips for All-Inclusive Vacations
1.When to Go All-Inclusive
Determining when to choose all-inclusive comes down to the destination you intend to visit and the activities you plan to do there. “Some destinations are geared toward the all-inclusive experience,” says Johnny DiScala, who runs the travel website JohnnyJet.com. All-inclusive hot-spots like Jamaica and the Dominican Republic have limited tourism infrastructures outside the resorts, he explains, which can make it frustrating to get around or organize activities independently.
So do some research, and figure out whether you’re comfortable with eating, drinking, and hanging out almost entirely at the resort, because all-inclusive means you pay up front for meals, drinks, and certain resort activities whether you use them or not. “If you don’t intend to eat or drink a lot at the resort, an all-inclusive probably isn’t the best choice for you,” DiScala says. If it’s a destination that begs to be explored, one where you prefer to hit the streets, experience the culture, and try a variety of restaurants, an all-inclusive won’t be a good deal for you, no matter what it costs.
2. Book Ahead
Ideally, the all-inclusive-vacation planning process should start a few months, even a year, in advance, depending on the season in which you plan to travel. “While all-inclusive resorts typically have some decent last-minute sales during less popular travel seasons, the airfare is often so expensive that it cancels out the benefits,” says Carey Driscoll, a travel agent for Beach Bum Vacation. “You’re more likely to find a resort that offers a good price if you book far in advance, and reputable resorts will offer discounts for booking early.”
3. Remember the Seasons
If you’re looking for a bargain on an all-inclusive vacation in the Caribbean or Mexico, travel during the summer low season, or the spring and fall shoulder seasons, when many resorts slash their rates. This includes hurricane season (June to November), which can bring discounted rates up to 60 percent off their high-season counterparts. “Hurricane season is typically the most affordable time to travel to all-inclusive resorts,” Driscoll says. “Just be flexible, buy insurance, and understand the potential consequences.”
There are also times to avoid at all costs (unless you’re looking for a certain kind of environment), mainly spring break (mid-March to mid-April), Christmas, and New Year’s. “These are the most popular times to travel to the Caribbean and Mexico,” Driscoll says. “Most resorts don’t have sales at this time; almost all have minimum stays; and the best all-inclusive resorts will sell out a year in advance.”
4. Get Honest Reviews
All-inclusive resorts aren’t just places to crash after a long day of exploring. They are self-sustaining worlds where you’ll eat, sleep, and play for most—if not all—of your trip. This fact makes it even more important to ensure pre-departure that the resort fits your needs and delivers on its own hype.
“Every all-inclusive resort looks amazing based on the marketing photos, brochures, and websites,” Driscoll explains. “Sometimes the beach looks pretty in a photo, but it may actually be rocky or have an undertow so you can’t swim. Other times you might see photos of a recently renovated, high-end suite, but when you show up you get a standard room that hasn’t been updated.”
Do thorough research by looking collectively at the traveler reviews on websites like Orbitz or CheapTickets, or try to find a travel agent who has personal experience with the properties he/she represents.
5. Pay Once
Unless you’re a flight attendant or have airline miles to burn, you’ll get the best overall price for an all-inclusive vacation—e.g., resort, flights, ground transfers—if you book everything together. Online booking sites offer special discounts to people who purchase some combination of flights, hotels, and car rentals together. However, Driscoll maintains that specialized travel agents can provide a better overall experience. “If there are problems, travel agents can cut through the mess and fix the situation. They can also make sure [all costs] are included up front—for example, transportation to/from the airport, flight and hotel taxes, and arrival/departure fees that are charged by some countries for international travel.”
6. Go Niche
An all-inclusive vacation doesn’t have to mean cookie-cutter buffets, endless margaritas, and beach volleyball. Activity-specific all-inclusives like dive resorts or fishing lodges are more likely to be independently owned, boutique-style properties offering local character and personalized service, along with many of the same on-site perks as the corporate resorts. Or, if you prefer the larger properties, consider joining like-minded travelers and dedicating time to something that interests you on a theme trip, like Club Med’s fitness-focused GObeachfest events, culinary vacations, or even yoga retreats.
7. Read the Fine Print
As with any deal, it pays to read the fine print before forking over the funds for an all-inclusive vacation. At some resorts, “all-inclusive meals” refers just to the buffets, and maybe includes one or two à la carte meals at the on-site restaurants. Others may only offer all-inclusive drinks until a certain time at night. And check whether the resort nickel-and-dimes guests over the small extras, like fees for lounge chairs or to rent beach or sporting equipment.
Also find out the resort’s tipping policy. “Some resorts have a no-tipping policy,” Driscoll says. “But others are very tip-driven, and you need to make sure you’re prepared for that.” If tips are accepted at the resort, a good amount to budget is $100 for a weeklong stay, spread out among bartenders, cleaning staff, bellhops, and the concierge. “Even though we didn’t have to, we tipped,” says Rob Webster, a traveler and filmmaker from Kansas City, about his honeymoon in the Dominican Republic. “The result? We were warmly greeted when we came in the restaurants, and our concierge became our friend. He gave us cigars from a small stash he kept, and we’ve exchanged e-mails and stayed in touch on Facebook.”
Taking a minute to find out ahead of time exactly which activities are included in the all-inclusive price makes sense for two reasons: First, while loads of on-site activities like volleyball, water aerobics, and renting on-site beach gear may be included in the price, others will not—especially spa services or activities that require off-site travel. For example, many resorts with scuba-diving centers will advertise free diving lessons. This almost always means a short—10- to 15-minute—lesson in the pool with the option to pay anywhere from $30 to $100 for full-length dives in the ocean. So whether it’s getting pampered in the spa or hitting the flats to go fishing, check if the resort offers special packages geared toward your particular activity.
And second, since you’ve already paid for them, you’ll want to take advantage of as many included activities as possible. “Read the program—a lot of people miss out on less obvious activities around the resort,” DiScala says. “A lot of resorts offer live shows, cooking classes, kids’ programs—at a resort in Tahiti, they gave lessons on how to open a coconut, which was a small thing but still really cool.”
9. Food and Drink
Many all-inclusive resorts offer two types of dining, the all-you-can-eat buffets and snack bars that are open all or most of the time, and à la carte meals, usually at a variety of themed sit-down restaurants; e.g., French, Italian, Brazilian, etc. Generally, guests get a limited number of à la carte meals, and these restaurants fill up fast. So decide in advance which restaurants you want to try, and make the reservations when you check in.
Like the buffets, drinks are usually a bulk affair—local beers, well cocktails, and premixed frozen drinks. But even if you don’t drink alcohol, you don’t have to feel like you’re missing out or paying for something you won’t use. “Normally, drinkers get beer, rum and Coke, whiskey and Coke, vodka and a mixer—items bought in bulk by the resort,” Driscoll says. “But non-drinkers can ask for fresh fruit smoothies and juices, which actually use better ingredients, and in the end, it really balances out.”
10. Consider an Upgrade
Many all-inclusive resorts offer tiered packages or “club levels,” which can work out to a good bargain if the perks match your needs. “For our honeymoon in the Dominican Republic, we upgraded to a club-level suite for a little more money,” Webster says. “We got a fully stocked refrigerator, access to the club room with food 24/7, our own club-level concierge, and free Internet access.”
At the Barcelo Maya Palace Resort on Mexico’s Riviera Maya, for example, the daily surcharge for upgrading to “Club Premium” status costs $25/person, and the benefits include—among others—access to the VIP lounge, premium drinks, free Internet access, discounts on spa treatments, as well as unlimited, priority reservations for dinners at the à la carte restaurants (rather than the buffets).